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Rethinking Religious Radio

Religious programmers are exploring new ways of spreading the word and reaching audiences. And although they are not about to abandon traditional radio, many are turning to alternative platforms such as podcasts and Web streaming. Case in point: Issues, Etc., a talk show that airs on about 100 stations nationwide. Although the show continues to buy airtime on religious stations, its audience is increasingly listing online.

“Our listenership continues to grow exponentially via podcasts,” said Jeff Schwarz, the show's producer. “The listenership is growing on the Internet side. It's not growing [as much] on the terrestrial radio side.”

The target audience for Issues, Etc. is fathers, whose busy lifestyles often don't leave much time for tuning in to a show. For them—and many other demographics—streaming and podcasts are attractive because they can listen on their schedule. Another draw is the ability to search archived shows for a particular topic or guest.

Even so, Issues, Etc. isn't giving up on radio, which brings in the bulk of new listeners. “We've polled our top 100 donors, and 70% found out about the show by listening to a local Christian radio station,” Schwarz said.

Catholic listeners are finding more options on radio, thanks to initiatives by groups such as the Catholic Radio Association. Eternal Word Television Network is helping foster that market by providing 24-hour satellite feeds of English- and Spanish-language programming. That gives station owners a low-cost way to cater to Catholics. EWTN's programming also is available on Sirius, as is content from the Archdiocese of New York.

“In the U.S. in the last few years, it's gone from being virtually zero to 150 or so stations broadcasting Catholic programming,” said Doug Keck, EWTN's senior VP.

Still, many religious stations also offer programming online. One example is St. Louis' KFUO-AM, owned by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Its lineup includes podcasts and live streams. Another is EMF Broadcasting, which operates the K-LOVE and Air 1 Radio networks.

“Streaming continues to grow at astronomic rates,” said Dick Jenkins, EMF's president. “Streaming music for K-LOVE and Air 1 now delivers approximately 1 million additional listeners each week, primarily at-work listeners and those who live in fringe areas.”

But for stations that program religious music, podcasts currently aren't driving much listenership. “I don't see any evidence that podcasts are generating any substantial numbers of new listeners,” Jenkins said. “EMF Web sites receive about 11 million hits per month and distribute less than 1,000 podcasts.”

Song downloads are a different story. “The popularity of music downloads is on the increase,” Jenkins said. “Recently, EMF ran a promotion that generated 183,000 free music downloads in just a few weeks.”

A related trend is the growth of music formats on religious radio. “During the past five years in the U.S., Christian talk radio has been declining, while Christian music radio has been increasing,” Jenkins said. “The current talk/teaching audience is comprised mostly of older listeners, while Christian music listeners are much younger. Christian contemporary music has become more popular in the church, as more churches have changed their worship music to appeal to attendees from the X and Y generations.”

Some programmers believe that the growth in younger audiences will force changes on the talk side, too. “I think that the days of the taped half-hour shows are maybe a generation [from extinction],” Schwarz said. “They're going to have to do something differently.”

As they expand their music programming, some religious stations are picking up a bigger share of the secular market. “Studies show that in some cases, where Christian music stations make careful choices to avoid Christian lingo, the non-believer quotient of the audience composition rises dramatically,” Jenkins said.

Also changing the religious programming scene are telco TV providers, which see a wide range of faith-based fare as a way to differentiate themselves from cable and satellite. “They're picking up not only the television channels, but also our radio services,” said Michael Warsaw, president of EWTN.

Meanwhile, many secular music services, such as Music Choice, are available via cable operators' broadband portals. So it wouldn't be surprising to see religious audio programming show up there, too. “It's certainly something in discussion with some MSOs,” Warsaw said. “Our overall goal is to have our programming out in as many platforms and as many ways as possible.”

But attracting younger demographics and broader audiences isn't the only key reason more programmers are offering online content. Some audiences, by virtue of their faith's beliefs, may be more inclined to access content online rather than via a traditional TV or radio show.

“Within the Jewish community, Orthodox families are less likely to have television in the home,” said Bradford Hammer, COO of Shalom TV. “Thus, videotapes, DVDs, the Web and now mobile devices are critical video sources in providing everything from news to entertainment to religious studies. For Web- or wireless-based video programmers devoted to Orthodox Judaism, or the generally observant community, there exists both an audience and an opportunity.”

As the percentage of people listening to religious radio online grows, it's likely to begin to affect the rates that stations can charge ministries and other faith-based programmers. Some welcome that pressure.

“I don't see how ministries are going to continue to pay these rates when more and more of their donors can listen to them on demand,” said Schwarz, who expects podcasts and streaming to eventually become the modes of choice for religious audiences age 25 and below. “Internet streaming is going to force down the rates for terrestrial Christian radio stations.”

Schwarz argues that most Christian stations' rates don't reflect the audiences they deliver—but that they get away with it because in most markets, there are only one or two religious outlets. “An hour of airtime in San Francisco is $500,” Schwarz said. “If you did a cost per point on that, no ad agency would buy that. It's kind of a monopoly.”

Some station owners agree. “The rates are getting too high for talk time in relation to historical rate structures,” said EMF's Jenkins. “But it's a fact of life: Supply and demand always win out. As long as show producers are getting a positive rate of return—maybe not the previous 60% to 80% cash flow anymore, but say 20%—then they continue to buy the time, which keeps the rates high.”

The wild card is how soon Internet listening reaches the point where it starts creating pricing pressure. As Jenkins said: “Once you get one out of four talk show producers cancelling their contracts, I can assure you the rates will come down.”